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Italy Backs Controversial Plan to Build Migrant Reception Centers in North Africa

At a European Commission meeting today, Italy supported a proposal to build a series of immigration facilities that would process potential immigrants into the EU.
March 12, 2015, 7:20pm
Photo by Nikos Halkiopoulos/AP

Italy today pushed for the creation of migrant reception centers in North Africa, strongly supporting a European Commission proposal to reduce the record numbers of people trying to get to Europe — and dying in the process — by not letting them reach the continent in the first place.

At a European Commission meeting in Brussels, the Italian delegation pressed for international immigration facilities in North Africa to receive and process refugees attempting to cross into the EU.

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Following nearby conflict and upheaval, a record 278,000 illegal border crossings were noted into Europe in 2014, two and a half times more than the 107,000 in 2013, according to Frontex, the EU's external border management agency.

This proposal hopes to stem some of the flow of immigration into the continent using European offices and embassies in Africa. Niger, Tunisia, and Sudan are the top contenders, while Morocco and Egypt are also options. The plan goes that in these foreign outposts, potential immigrants would be able to communicate directly with their desired home and apply for refugee status. Those designated as solely economic migrants would be denied access to the EU.

Related: Storming Spain's razor-wire fence: Europe or die (Episode 1). Watch here.

Luigi Manconi, president of the Human Rights Commission of the Italian Senate, told the meeting that he finds the proposal necessary, "for two main reasons: to avoid the crossings of the Mediterranean and the related risks and to distribute asylum seekers all around Europe according to balanced reception quotas."

There has been increased concern over immigration into Europe since 366 refugees drowned off of the coast of Sicily in 2013.

In 2014, 3,500 migrants drowned attempting the crossing from North Africa into Europe. Deaths in the Mediterranean are also likely to increase since Italy ceased its Mare Nostrum search and rescue program in October.

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The Italian government claimed that it was covering the monthly $10.2 million cost of the project for immigrants that were destined for more northern European nations. The EU has since taken over patrolling the sea with the smaller and cheaper Triton project.

Yet groups that work with immigrants are wary of the focus on keeping refugees in Africa. "Up until now refugee camps in Africa have meant being abandoned in the desert, with only a meager percentage of real possibility for moving on to Europe," blogged Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, professor of political science at the University of Palermo.

Paleologo, speaking of the Coucha refugee camp in Tunisia, added that "even those that are recognized with a protective status still don't have permits to live legally in Tunisia, nor permits to travel, so often these people have to risk their lives, return to Libya, and try to get into Sicily by the sea."

Italian non-profit organization Emergency, which provides medical services to migrants, called for legal means of access into Europe, calling them "the only coherent solution to avoid addition loss of life in the sea."

Related: The building blocks of Fortress Europe: How EU policy is failing record numbers of migrants. Read more here.

"We call on Italy and the European Union to strengthen the search and rescue missions in the sea and to begin political negotiations to guarantee the protection and defense of the human rights of refugees, immigrants, and those seeking asylum, that are crossing the Mediterranean."

The interior ministers of France, Germany, and Austria supported the proposal, according to AP. Yet not all European nations are expected to be in agreement, sometimes due to its plan to distribute the refugees that are accepted from the camps.

"The Hungarian man is, by nature, politically incorrect. That is, he has not lost his common sense," said Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister in February. "He does not want to see throngs of people pouring into his country from other cultures who are incapable of adapting and are a threat to public safety, to his job and to his livelihood."

The UK Home Secretary Theresa May has also rejected the proposal, claiming that "the idea of making it easier for legal routes to stop illegal routes is completely the wrong way."

The European Commission will continue its deliberations on immigration, and should announce an official policy sometime this summer.